By MEGAN DURISIN
Capital News Service
LANSING – Teen births are experiencing their first decline nationwide in four years, and a Department of Community Health (DCH) initiative is working to further prevent them in Michigan.
“There’s been a nationwide decline of 2 percent, the first decline since 2005,” said Julie McKeiver, the director of communications at Planned Parenthood of West and Northern Michigan in Grand Rapids. “That’s good news, but the rate we’re at right now is still too high.”
Statistics from 2008, the most current available, show the teen birth rate at 41.5 births per 1,000 teens ages 15 to 19.
The Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative began in 2009 and it launched a Web site in March to bring DCH projects together, said Kara Anderson, teen pregnancy prevention consultant at the department.
Its goal is to encourage teens to start having sex at a later age and to increase condom and contraceptive use.
Currently, the initiative is funding four agencies: Baldwin Family Health Care, Planned Parenthood of Mid and South Michigan in Ann Arbor, Planned Parenthood of West and Northern Michigan, and a District 10 Health Department program in Wexford and Oceana counties.
“Last year was the pilot, and two out of the four agencies started doing something,” Anderson said. “Kids are learning. It’s had a great impact.”
McKeiver said her agency’s programs in Kent and Muskegon counties were part of the pilot.
Participants complete an evaluation before and after the 15-hour program to measure what they’ve learned, she said.
“The test results have been quite dramatic,” McKeiver said. “Most students are getting well over 90 percent grades on testing, when initially many of them know only a few of the answers.”
The grants were based on the agencies’ number of youth, planned curriculums and capacity, Anderson said.
“This year, they were each slated to receive $100,000, but due to budget cuts, they only received $90,000,” Anderson said, adding that the budget will be re-evaluated next year.
Each participating program must target at least 250 youth for 14 hours of education, which helps them gain skills in decision-making, communication and resistance to peer pressure.
The program for youth ages 10 to 18 includes school health classes and after-school programs, including community advisory councils, awareness activities, media campaigns and education.
“We’re targeting 1,000 youth and probably getting another couple of thousand that are still receiving some education,” Anderson said.
Their parents are also required to receive two to four hours of education, which Anderson said is crucial because they play the most important role in teens’ sexuality education.
McKeiver said her agency is on track to reach the 250 target. The agency seeks diversity in age, gender and background of students.
“We’ve done programs with three different churches, with a group of children that were adopted and one with refugee children,” McKeiver said. “They had to have three different translators along with the educators.”
McKeiver said students who show leadership potential during the workshops have the opportunity to become peer leaders and help adult educators teach sessions later. The participants said they like learning from someone their age who is knowledgeable about the issues, she said.
When Michigan Public Radio interviewed peer leaders recently, McKeiver said she was “blown away” at what they had learned.
“Two to three months before, people had been asking them direct questions and they were shy about it,” McKeiver said. “Last month they were going like wildfire. It’s so obvious that it’s a direct impact of the program.”
For the leaders, it’s about much more than sex education, she said.
Jane Zehnder-Merrell, Kids Count Director at the Michigan League for Human Services, said a recent study found that mid-sized counties with populations between 20,000 and 65,000 have had the highest teen pregnancy rates in Michigan from 2002 to 2007, which she called a “surprising finding.”
“It’s significant in that for five years there was a steady increase in mid-sized counties,” she said. “Frankly, though, the rate’s not back up to where it was in 2000.”
Zehnder-Merrell said Michigan compares well to other states, ranking 16th in the country for the lowest teen birth rate.
“But the U.S. has the worst teen birth rate of any other industrialized country,” she said. “And not by a little bit, by double.”
McKeiver said teen mothers are often poorer than non-mothers and, in many cases, don’t finish high school or go to college.
“It’s not impossible to go on and be successful as a teen parent, but it’s much harder,” McKeiver said.
According to the DCH, Michigan teen births for females ages 15 to 19 decreased from 20,224 in 1990 to 12,493 in 2007.
Anderson said an increase in public service commercials, greater birth control awareness and more child and adolescent centers may be responsible for the decline.
“Local communities are addressing it,” Anderson said. “It’s not only a statewide initiative.”
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.